Professor Robert Gildea, University of Oxford


This project challenges both the myth of French resistance and the ‘scientific’ or academic histories of the Resistance in the last thirty years. Early work on the French Resistance, written by the resisters themselves from their own testimonies, developed the myth of ‘la France résistante’ as a dominant narrative as a response to the need to restore a sense of unity and pride to the French nation. This approach was criticised after 1980 by ‘scientific’ or academic histories of the Resistance which rejected the individual testimony of former resisters as unreliable and partisan. It argued that only the ‘objective’ archival sources that were then becoming available to researchers should be used and established tight definitions of what amounted to acts of resistance. A previous project, Marianne in Chains(2002), was of the ‘scientific’ kind, using conventional archival sources to demonstrate how marginal resistance was to ordinary people and communities seeking to weather defeat and occupation. The methodology of the current project takes up the challenge of the subjective turn in much recent historiography and an interest in exploring wartime France through the prism of individual testimonies such as Irene Nemirowsky’s Suite française (2004). My previous AHRC project, ‘Around 1968: Activism, Networks, Trajectories’ (2007-10), highlighted important insights gained from the study of oral testimony, such as the way in which memory constructs itself as narrative and the constant dialogue between individual subjectivity, group and societal memory or narrative.

The current project takes the view that ‘la Résistance’ was not a single mythical entity, neither can it be reduced to a single ideal-type. It argues that resistance was what those who engaged in it said that it meant and that resisters were those who constructed themselves as such. Resistance, however, was constructed within certain frameworks and had to be translated for given audiences. In the first place it was developed to convince the Allies of the need for intervention to liberate France. Secondly, it was contested between rival groups battling to impose their resistance narrative as hegemonic – between resisters inside France and the Free French in Britain or the French Empire, between Communist and non-Communist resisters, French and foreign resisters, resisters working within the Vichy regime and those outside it, by Christian and Jewish resisters. Third, ideas of resistance were in dialogue with wider accounts of resistance elaborated by the media more widely in French society, and changing over time. These changes culminated in the paradigm shift in the 1990s which caused the Second World War to be seen through the lens of the Holocaust, and replaced the heroic image of the resistance fighter by that of the Juste de France who had saved Jews from deportation to Auschwitz.

Research will be undertaken both in Britain and France. Letters and accounts written from wartime France will be consulted in the BBC’s Written Archives at Caversham, the BCRA archives in Paris (3AG2) and the SOE Archives at the National Archive at Kew (HS 4-9).In France, the main source will be the individual testimonies conserved in the Archives Nationales series 72AJ, together with applications for official recognition as resisters in the War Veterans ministry and unpublished autobiographies kept by the Association pour l’Autobiographie et le Patrimoine Autobiographique.

The principal output of this project will be a monograph on the French Resistance. It will also contribute to the Wiles lectures I have been invited to give in 2013 entitled Myth, Memory and Narrative in France since 1940, and will contribute to a collaborative project I am developing with Steffen Prauser on resistance in wartime Europe and its transnational dimensions, both real and imagined, taking into account French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Soviet and also German resistance.


Professor Robert Gildea

Leverhulme Trust page